Work       Writing       About

Improving ICU Experience

Type: Mixed Method (explorative + descriptive) Research
Project Duration: 1.5 months (Oct-Nov 2019)
Role: Design Researcher

Background & Goal

The ICU is a very emotionally charged space that can result in traumatizing experiences for patients and visitors of patients alike. Additionally, caretakers and practitioners that navigate this space become so desensitized to the experience that it is difficult for them to empathize with the distressed visitors.

In this project, our team aims to challenge the way medical professionals recognize and identify each patient to explore the way people build trust and understanding in the ICU environment and further suggest different ways to encourage patient-centered ICU experience.

Research Questions:
- How might we build trust and understanding between patients and ICU staff so that patients can focus on their recovery process?
- How might we encourage medical professionals to incorporate patient centered care in the ICU?


Our team was a group of Brown and RISD students affiliated with Design For America

Sejin Hwang (Industrial Design), Jillian Cai (Industrial Design), Felicia Renelus (Cognitive Science), Claire Lin (Engineering), Gabby Hoefer (Computer Science)


Research Plan

Testing & Analysis


To kick off, we interviewed 5 patients/caregivers and 9 ICU staffs (physicians and nurses). For patients and caregivers, we aimed to understand their general thoughts on ICU experience. Therefore, we focused on asking how patients and caregivers describe their experience and struggle in ICU, especially related to the interactions with staffs. For healthcare professionals, we wanted to understand how staffs recognize patients’ struggle and situation in ICU environment.

Key findings from thematic analysis

1. Involvement of patient/family is important in patient-staff interaction 

staffs think that giving families some type of control in a patient situation or involving them in the decision-making process is important in building trust and creating better relationships between patient/family and staff.

2. Social worker intervention

there are certain situations in that patients, families and staff feel uncomfortable encountering each other. In these cases, social workers intervene in their interactions to support both sides.

3. Communication as a major challenge

Staffs reveal their struggles with communication, especially the one between staff members. Due to the high-stress environment with a hectic schedule, some communication could fall through the cracks.


While having interviews, we created online survey to hear more from patients/caregivers. The major purpose of the survey was to understand which stage of ICU experience that patients/caregivers struggle the most and what are some improvements they are expecting. To help participants answer easily, we provided simple patient journey graphics that divided ICU experience into 4 stages (check-in, assessment, treatment, outcome). By doing so, we were able to get more detailed answers from patients/caregivers which helped us define what to ask to ICU staffs in later phases.

Key findings

1. Focus on assessment stage

Assessment stage(running tests and getting asked questions about condition) was the most challenging experience for patients.

2. Staff-patient interactions and patient resources are the key area to improve

Patients/caregivers believe these are the need improvements to make in ICU - shorter waiting time, better communication between patients and staff, increase efficiency for patients in pain, more sympathetic staffs, better acommodations for caregivers.


During shadowing, our team wished to explore the realistic ICU environment and better understand the general workflow and human interactions. Based on the interview and survey data, we decided to focus on three areas during shadowing:

1) interactions between people
2) layout of the space

Key findings

1. Nurses as key stakeholder in staff-patient interaction

Nurses have a broad range of communication including empathetic interactions with patients and caregivers. However, due to patients’ health conditions, most of the communication happened between nurses and caregivers.

2. Lack of communication between nurses and doctors

Due to hectic work shift of nurses, there isn’t enough time for doctors to interact with nurses. They usually communicate through the information on the computers.

Focus Group Workshop

From the survey data, we found that patients/caregivers wish for more sympathy from staff. When asking staff about empathy towards patients during the interview, interviewees were tend to be defensive so that we couldn’t get much data on topic of empathy. Therefore, we conducted a focus group workshop to create a space to learn more about hcps behavior and belief around the interaction with patients in the ICU environment. 

Key findings from affinity diagram

1. Sensory overload

Overload of stimuli during the stay was the major concern that staffs wish to improve for a better ICU experience of patients and their families.

2. Waiting time is the stage to intervene with design solutions

Staffs believe that there are a lot of elements to improve while patients are waiting. For patients/families, providing tools to inform them about patient situations better, allowing patients to feel cared. For staff, creating tools that could reduce tedious responsibilities required in the primary stage to have efficient time managing for patient treatment.


© Sejin Hwang